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Last January, Case Keenum threw 20 incompletions, threw two picks, and threw away what felt like a Super Bowl in the cold of the NFC championship game in Philadelphia.
The Minnesota Vikings saw their quarterback get outdueled by Eagles backup Nick Foles, dashing the dream of hosting the Super Bowl. Afterward, the franchise focused on a single thing – get a quarterback, just about any quarterback, at just about any price.
All the other pieces were there, they believed.
So they went out and got Kirk Cousins, for $84 million over three years, convincing him to come to Minnesota because of how close the Vikings were to winning everything.
“Kirk is our guy,” head coach Mike Zimmer said last March. “Hopefully we can continue to do some things we did last year. We played pretty good on defense most of the time. We have a good football team … If we can just continue to keep getting better, keep trying to get a little bit better every day, maybe we can finally get over that one last game that we didn’t get over last year.”
Technically, the Vikings can still get over that one last game this season. Minnesota still sits in the final wild-card spot in the NFC.
They are 6-6-1 though, and have scored just 17 combined points in two consecutive losses. On Tuesday they fired their offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, a sign of December desperation that rarely works.
The defense is still stout. The offense is terrible though, and that means all eyes on the $84 million man who, to his credit, took ownership of his anemic play and the consequences it has caused for the Vikings (and former Vikings).
“That was one of the things I did convey to Coach Flip yesterday,” Cousins said. “I do believe, had I played at my fullest potential play in, play out, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. That’s something I take personally and is tough for me and keeps you up at night. All you can do is go forward.”
For Cousins, he’ll have to. If he doesn’t play better and the Vikings’ offense doesn’t improve, then he’ll go down as one of the bigger free-agent busts in recent NFL history.
A team close to the Super Bowl went all-in and believed it had significantly upgraded itself at the most important position on the field.
Instead it regressed.
“We’ve got to score points,” Cousins said. “You do that and you put yourself in a position, especially with the way our defense has played. That is where our focus is now. How do we score points? How do we execute play in, play out to make sure we get into the end zone and coming away with enough points to win the game?”
Cousins is on pace for career highs in completion percentage and touchdowns. He should pass for over 4,000 yards.
Yet his inability to generate points against quality teams has been atrocious. Much like during his years in Washington, he was good against bad clubs and bad against good clubs. In the end, Washington didn’t win either and let him walk.
Too often, in critical times, he plays like the fourth-round pick he was, not a diamond in the rough. He doesn’t take chances down field. He doesn’t deliver in key moments. Cousins is a likable guy, perhaps maximizing his abilities, but when a player gets a contract that big for a team this promising, he can’t be just a game manager.
The repercussions are everywhere. DeFilippo is gone this week. How safe Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are is anyone’s guess. They gambled on Cousins. It hasn’t paid off. Cousins gets it.
“You look at it, ‘What do I need to do better?’ ” Cousins said. “At the quarterback position, the ball is in your hands.”
“Those are tough places to play, good teams,” he said.
True, but to go anywhere in the playoffs Minnesota has to beat good teams in tough places. That’s how it works. The Jets and 49ers don’t play in January. And the Vikings aren’t hosting anything this season.
Against current playoff teams, Minnesota is 0-5. Against everyone else, it’s 6-1-1. Soon enough, everyone else doesn’t matter.
“We’re the sixth seed right now, if we win these next games we’re in the playoffs,” Cousins said of having Miami, at Detroit and Chicago to close out the season. “Had we won previous games we’d be in even better position. Each game counts as one, no more, no less. We’re in position where if we get the job done these last three weeks we’re right where we need to be and I don’t think we need to view it as anything different.”
He knows that isn’t true. Not anymore. Not for $84 million. Not with these kinds of expectations.
The Vikings defense still looks like a Super Bowl contender. That means it’s now or never for Kirk Cousins.
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